The winter issue of the North Carolina State Bar’s Journal came out this week. Of interest to attorneys practicing online with a virtual law practice, the Journal published the Proposed 2008 Formal Ethics Opinion 3, Assisting a Pro Se Litigant. The proposed opinion had come out earlier this year but was only recently printed in the state bar’s publication.
The Bar’s summarized its ethics decision:
Proposed opinion rules a lawyer may assist a pro se litigant by drafting pleadings and giving advice without making an appearance in the proceeding and without disclosing or ensuring the disclosure of his assistance to the court unless required to do so by law or court order.
How does this relate to a virtual law practice?
Several virtual law office owners that I have worked with are planning on providing pro se litigants with unbundled legal services. This would help to lessen the burden on the court systems in their state that are swamped with pro se litigants and at the same time allow the attorneys to tap into a different client base with a large need for legal services.
The technology of a web-based virtual law office would allow these attorneys to efficiently assist a large number of pro set litigants in any number of areas of law. They could charge fees for legal services that are perhaps less than their traditional billable hour rates, but which make economic sense because the client is doing all of the footwork and the technology streamlines the process.
Of interest in this NC ethics opinion, the state bar specifically recognizes the public’s need for legal services to be delivered in less traditional ways. The ethics opinion references the NC 2005 Formal Ethics Opinion 10 which permits an internet based law practice to offer to work with and provide clients with online legal services, including providing services to pro se litigants.
The key to this new proposed ethics opinion is similar to the NC 2005 FEO Opinion 10 because it requires that the online client provide “informed consent” to the limited online representation. Through a VLO, the client is given adequate notice of the terms and scope of the online representation multiple times and is asked to accept these terms through two separate clickwrap agreements.
The ethics opinion also requires that the attorney make the independent judgment as to whether the services he or she offers can be competently provided to the client based on that client’s unique legal needs. This is similar to the process any attorney should go through in a traditional law practice and is not different with a virtual law office.
To summarize, this opinion is another nod from another state bar that a virtual law practice may provide services to pro se litigants, provided that the virtual law practice is handled properly by the attorney practicing law online.